This guest post is written by Ned Barrett. Ned rides his bike to work every day, and values the freedom he feels on it. He is the partnership coordinator at Partners for Active Living, a non-profit focused on making Spartanburg County healthier and more active, and one of the hosts of the Green Screen Film Series.
In The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette, 1948), Director Vittorio De Sica represents the despair in post-World War II Rome. We see the crushing of a hero, Antonio Ricci, weighed down by surging crowds, blank architecture, and deep joblessness.
The film, which showed Wednesday, March 8 as the latest in the Green Screen Film Series, won all kinds of awards, including an Oscar. Lots of folks who know say it is among the best films ever, a classic of neo-realism.
The film opens in a crowd of men in front of an impenetrable wall, waiting for a tid-bit of a job, anything, Ricci, says, because he’s “not going another year to wait for a job.” His name is called, and the bicycle is introduced. No bicycle, no job.
The bicycle really isn’t in the film for very long. Director De Sica includes a few crowded scenes where Ricci turns his back on his most valuable material asset. At last, as he clumsily puts up a poster, hanging precariously to the side of his ladder, a young man emerges from the crowd in the street and takes his bicycle.
Early in the film, Ricci says, “I feel like a man in chains.” The chains break when he’s on the job. The music becomes uplifting, and Ricci realizes the joy of bike-riding among his colleagues, a free mode of transportation, giving him employment, but also placing him more firmly among the privileged mobile crowd. Even the crowd changes, becomes less menacing and blank. His transportation freedom allows him to be a more firmly planted member of his society.
The inevitable loss of his bicycle among the anonymous people, the trolleys, and the blankness of urban blight, then, is such a heavy blow, that sacred object, bought with other sacred objects.
Ricci sets off with his young son, a worthy sidekick, bright, street-smart but still in short pants, to find his bicycle. They search through a maelstrom of a bike parts market. Bikes abound, as racing bikes speed past, workers on bikes weave through the masses, long lines of bikes parked nearby. Frustrated, unable to break the anonymity that hides his bike, Ricci finally steals a lone bike, but fails, thwarted by the very crowds that hid the boy who took his bike.
His son is devastated by his father’s fall. Their noble quest, them against the corrupt world, drowns in the scum of thievery. But the boy remains loyal to the knight, and the film ends with Ricci and his son, holding hands, walking through the apocalypse of concrete and anonymity, swallowed up by the crowd.
The title’s direct translation, “The Bicycle Thieves,” becomes more clear in the final scene. Many are implicated in the theft of Ricci’s bicycle. Then even the knight Ricci is driven inexorably to thievery. Here is the neo-realist view that circumstances and the greater whole of all society’s structures, will bear down on the individual, no matter how much integrity and love he has, and break him. It is Ricci’s nobility that makes the realism all the more tragic.
That the central object is the bicycle is a telling look into basic human freedom. Ricci seeks dignity through work, and must have transportation to gain that dignity. He himself powers his bicycle, and the feeling of independence brings back his humanity. So desperate to regain that independence after his bike is stolen, he resorts to thievery himself. This powerful film questions the idea of the individual rising above the fray no matter the challenges. We have the hope of Ricci’s son, as yet uncorrupted by the faceless society, clinging to his father’s hand.